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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

Pandemic Parallels: the Black Death to Covid-19

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

The world is on lockdown, and a deadly new disease spreads westwards through the world. Sound familiar? No, not Covid-19, we’re talking about The Black Death. As the world tries to get to grips with corona virus, let’s take a look back almost seven centuries to the most devastating event in human history. One that took an estimated 200,000,000 lives, accounting for at least 40% of the worlds population.

(Londoners fleeing the plague are barred by country dwellers from 1625. SOURCE : NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY/SCIENCE)

It’s China in the 1330’s. A deadly and invisible enemy ripped through towns and villages taking no prisoners, leaving few alive. Travelling on the caravans of silk roads connecting east to west, the tiny Yersinia Pestis living on the fleas of rats went unnoticed throughout the Eurasian Steppe. The infected fleas would bite their hosts, causing large puss-filled sores or ‘buboes’ to form. Thesewere fatal in days, even hours, and spread rapidly.

The Bubonic Plague (or ‘Black Death’ as it was later known) found its way to Europe around 1347, at The Mongol siege of Kaffa, a Genoese controlled city. The Mongols were fearsome lads who used rapid cavalry tactics to blister their way across the steppe, laying waste to anything in their path. Led by the Infamous Genghis Khan and later his grandson Kublai Khan, they were bloodthirsty and brutally violent. Whole populations who didn’t bend the knee were slaughtered, and they enslaved those who did. Rumours from the siege started to circulate that the plague was ravaging the Mongols outside of the city. The Mongols began piling up their dead and dying soldiers, hoping the smell alone would destroy the morale of the defenders. It is unclear if plague victims were catapulted over the sides of Kaffa’s walls, but the Genoese did flee, using their ships to get back to the safety of Italy. Unbeknownst to them, however, they were carrying an extra cargo with them. Stopping off at the major trading centres of Constantinople, Valencia and Messina in Sicily, it wasn’t long before all of southern Europe and the Mediterranean was riddled with the pestilence. So called ‘death ships’ became common, loaded with dead and dying crews, infecting local populations before they could say ‘sling your hook.’

Between 1347 and 1349, the whole of Europe was in the grips of a pandemic that had been raging in Asia for the best part of a decade. But what was a 14th century lockdown like? Like the Corona Virus that is currently ruining economies and pushing health services to breaking point, the Plague of the 1340’s cared little for wealth or piety. It struck at all demographics across all borders, reducing cities such as Florence in Italy by as much as 95%. Contemporary medical knowledge wasn’t up to par, relying on ancient theories and religious dogma to treat any and all Ailments. Many supposed remedies actually caused more harm than good to the poor plague victims. Popular plague treatments included soaking the patient in vinegar and rose water, lancing the buboes and blood letting. Safe to say that none of these worked, with lancing causing blood poisoning and blood letting weakening patients and opening wounds that weren’t properly closed or cleaned. One thing that 14th century doctors and governments did at least get somewhat right was regional lockdowns. Whether it be a family home or a whole town, throughout England and the rest of Europe, if a plague victim was found, they were kept separate from the rest of the population. This wasn’t because of an understanding of viral transmission that we have today. They believed that the spirit or soul of the victim would, on its way to heaven, infect passers by, further spreading the plague.

Contemporary ‘Plague Doctor’ SOURCE: Wikimedia commons

The Black Death continued to spread through Scandinavia and northern Europe, as English trade ships arrived unknowingly carrying the plague. By the early 1350’s, there weren’t many places in the known world that hadn’t come into contact with it. As summers became winters though, the spread was stopped somewhat, but usually returned in the warmer months. Outbreaks happened most years for the next two decades with the long term effects being even more unbelievable than the millions of dead. Unlike today, with jobs in short supply and many turning to government and social care systems for support, the survivors of the Black Death were left with many more prospects than you may think. With most of the rural poor dead, the few remaining were able to barter with land owners for higher wages and better working conditions. The institution of serfdom, a slightly more favourable version of slavery, was all but destroyed by the plague. Over the next two centuries, western Europe began to thrive with the emergence of an archaic middle class.

the Black Death was arguably the most devastating and important events of the Middle Ages with many people drawing parallels to the current Corona Virus but the good news is, we are unlikely to see anything of the Bubonic Plagues magnitude ever again. over the last 700 years, human kind has dealt with pandemics and plagues with varying severity and have developed well beyond the understanding of 14th century man and with such theories as Louis Pasteur's Germ Theory of the 19th century, have a firm grip on the science of disease. The Black Death teaches us many lessons but the one that sticks out to me is, wear a mask!

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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